A question has come up as to what the original key was for Taps. Whether or not it was played on a G Bugle, or whether it has always been in B flat. as we play it today.
Thanks for asking. There is no “original” key to Taps. Taps is sounded in the key of the instrument you happen to be performing on. If you are asking whether the very first person who sounded Taps performed on a G or B flat, I would put my money on a B flat or C. The French clairon was the bugle used by the Infantry during the Civil War and the 1st person to sound the call (Oliver Wilcox Norton in 1862) more than likely had one as the Brigade bugler. You can read about Norton by CLICKING HERE
As for the key today…..A bugle (or field trumpet) pitched in G will play it in G, A bugle (or field trumpet) pitched in F will play it in F, a bugle (or field trumpet) pitched in B flat will play in B flat, etc. etc. etc…There are players who feel that if you are playing on a B flat trumpet or cornet you must play it in G concert and use the 1st and 2nd valves. This is really incorrect. I have also talked with performers who have sounded Taps on a C Trumpet with the first valve down to have it play in B flat concert. Again, really not correct.
A bugle call should be sounded on a natural or valveless instrument. If one is not available, the use of the natural overtones of the horn at hand is recommended. The intonation problems encountered and the increased chances of missing the partials are problematic when sounding calls using the 1st and 2nd or even the 1st and 3rd valves.
Many performers of Taps like to sound the call in G saying that the key has a more somber sound. The timbre is certainly lower than B Flat and Taps has a unique sound quality when performed on a G Bugle. There are also players who lack the range of hitting the higher note on a B Flat instrument and prefer to use a G because it is easier. And there are those who grew up in the Drum and Bugle Corps where G was the standard key of the instruments.
The United States military authorized various keys for bugles over the past 125 years. Calls were written for bugle and trumpets pitched in F, G, C and B flat. One important thing to note is that all bugle calls are written in the key of C. John Philip Sousa, in his 1886 manual Trumpet and Drums, wrote his calls for the F regimental (M1879 pattern) trumpet. Some them wound up in The Thunderer and Semper Fidelis.
In the 1940s and 50s, Army, Navy and Marine bugle manuals specified the G Field Trumpet (or bugle) as the instrument to use for calls. Military Bands today use B flat valved trumpets and I’ve not seen a US military bugler use a valveless instrument outside of The US Army Band (Pershing’s Own) and the USMC Drum and Bugle Corps at Arlington National Cemetery. Even at the funeral for Presidents Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush, a trumpet was used instead of a bugle. A break in the tradition for sounding Taps for the commander-in-chief. President Reagan’s funeral (army Bugler) had a bugle in B flat used.
There are some military musicians and those who play but do not hold the MOS of musician who use bugles, but it’s rare. Many non-military buglers who sound Taps at funerals today use either a B flat trumpet/cornet or a bugle pitched in G or B flat. I’ve seen the use of flugelhorn at funerals too. Many use valve instruments as a matter of convenience or lack of desire to purchase a bugle.
I have been a strong advocate for using bugles for Taps and other calls. It is a good a long tradition and gives the proper image when sounding the call. The reason for using a trumpet today is because of logistics and for many years a good bugle could not be purchased. Most of us suffered with the cheaply made “boy scout” bugles and were turned off by the idea of trying to sound decent calls on those things!
The military today states a trumpet or cornet can be used if no bugle is available. Most military players in military bands use trumpet as it is the most accessible and easy to perform on. The DoD regulations also state that the digital bugle can be used if no live bugler is available. This has been (unfortunately) loosely interpreted to some as the reason to use the digital over live performers. But that’s an article for another day…
A good instrument like a Bach Stradivarius B flat Bugle, the Getzen American Heritage Field Trumpet, (which I helped design), the Kanstul B flat Bugle and the Carol Brass B flat Bugles and are superior instruments that play in tune and are historically correct. In 2005, the US Army Band (TUSAB) restocked their inventory of Bach Stradivarius Bugles. They were able to get about 16 new ones after years of asking the company to make a new order. The last ones made were in the 1970s. I was able to piggy back on the order and acquired two these excellent horns for myself. They are first rate instruments.
You can find more information about Carol Brass Bugles here:
You can find more information about the American Heritage Getzen Bugles here:
Whether a bugle, cornet or trumpet, use the natural overtones on the horn. And as long as it is performed within the boundaries of musicality, military custom and good taste-that’s the important thing.